Ahead of today's (February 22) planning-group meeting to discuss the Olive Street park and AIDS memorial, some people are worried that the convoluted process has overwhelmed the most important idea.
The plan (to be discussed at St. Paul's Cathedral, 2700 Fifth Avenue at 6 p.m.) has brought on dissent over its approved location, so much so that a handful of Bankers Hill residents, the Hillcrest Business Association, and others have come up with an alternative design. Also, community members are voicing concerns about the process and how the funds were raised.
Meanwhile, the mayor's staff held a last-minute meeting February 21st to show a revised plan for the site.
Nationally recognized artist Roy McMackin said, “I see the real problem is that no one is focusing on the most important issue: to create a meaningful memorial to the thousands of people who died. The general ickiness of the process is making people crazy.”
The task force began working on the memorial three years ago, in March 2015, though it had been discussed many times and in many places before that. Nicole Murray Ramirez, an LGBT activist and Katherine Stuart (mayor Kevin Faulconer’s wife) are co-chairs of the group of 19 volunteers.
“All of the 19 of us are survivors, our friends died,” says Susan Jester, the task force’s spokeswoman. “We are feeling an urgent need to get this done — there’s a whole generation that thinks of AIDS as like diabetes. They don’t know how quickly the disease killed, how families wouldn’t take their son’s bodies, that the government stood by and didn’t help while this mysterious disease took thousands of our friends.”
Jester helped care for her friends and new friends; she recalls that she crossed out more than 250 names from her contacts book as people died.
“It was devastating, and it’s important history that needs to be shared,” she said.
Raising money for such a project may have been the biggest challenge. A retired architect drew up a design that everyone loved, but they couldn’t find a location or the money to get into one.
But when the city decided in 2016 to sell the Truax House, San Diego’s first AIDS hospice, then-councilman Todd Gloria stepped in. The looming battle over selling the arguably historic house — on a high spot off Laurel Street with bay views on the west and canyon views on the east — was headed off by Gloria’s proposal to use money from the sale to fund the memorial.
And he had a location: a piece of land long ago donated for a park on Third and Olive streets, one that looks over Maple Canyon, just as the Truax House location does.
The trouble started with a complicated financial deal — the Truax land was purchased with dedicated gas-tax funds for a highway that wasn’t built, so the sale should have returned the money to the dedicated fund. That raised concerns. Because the $500,000 was earmarked for a specific fund, it had to be moved into that fund and then $500,000 of general-fund money was moved to the Olive Street Park project.
Bankers Hill residents are divided, first on the park — any park — going in on their street. The vacant lot has been nearly abandoned by the city, filled with trash, and, in one area, incorporated into a neighbor’s yard.
Immediate neighbors don’t want a park there because they don’t want it to draw homeless people. Others point to a survey of residents who said they wanted a children’s playground with some green — and were surprised to find it would be shared with an AIDS memorial (not clear if they were told it was to be named Dr. Brad Truax Park).
People outside of Bankers Hill also don’t like the location. So far, 37 people have signed a MoveOn.org petition rejecting the location without suggesting another.
Some in the community want to see the memorial in Hillcrest, on Normal Street by the Pride flag.
“Hillcrest is the historic home of the LGBT community where people gather and where the AIDS crisis touched everyone,” said Ben Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association. “It is a safe space for the community and it seems like it is the most appropriate place.”
Nicholls said he didn’t like that the memorial would be a small part of a park, deep in a residential neighborhood.
“The victims were shunned and hidden away,” he said. “It would be unfortunate if the memorial is hidden away. The metaphor of putting it in a small, far corner of Bankers Hill is very unfortunate.”
Others, however, disdain the idea of putting it on a median on a busy street that is slated to become a car-free parkway some time in the future.
And worse, they say, that plan undoes a lot of work.
“We spent 30 years making sure the public understands that AIDS is not a gay disease,” Jester said. “The AIDS Memorial is an opportunity to bring public awareness of not only those who died during the ’80s but those who are dealing with HIV now and a lot of those people are not gay and don’t live in Hillcrest and don’t necessarily want to reflect on a loved one under a gay flag on the median of Normal Street.”
Uptown Planners (nonvoting chairman) Leo Wilson agreed that a Hillcrest location is backsliding on the hard-won recognition that AIDS killed lots of different people.
“The street median in the middle of a busy street in a commercial district is not the location to place an AIDS memorial…forget going to a location to quietly remember your friends who passed away.”
With the dissent — ranging from thoughtful to shrill — has come accusations: a flawed public process, a mere photo opportunity for the mayor and Gloria, and more.
Some are rude and insulting, Jester says. From her perspective, Faulconer’s support has been valuable and without benefit to him. The Gloria proposal to cobble together money and a location saved the group from years of sluggish process and the arduous task of raising millions of dollars.
Other allegations are just ignorant, she said. When people say the process wasn’t transparent, she calmly cites five city-council appearances, a long-standing Facebook page, and dozens of public meetings. But the complaints that the memorial fails to honor the victims bother Jester.
“To say it’s not going to work because it’s not big enough is a disingenuous and ridiculous assertion,” she said. “It will be a beautiful, comfortable place, meditative and reflective and respectful, a place to remember our loved ones.”
Today (February 22), the current design will be shown to the Uptown Planners for their thoughts before it heads to the mayor for a final recommendation.
What’s presented will be different from the previous design that was shown publicly at a subcommittee meeting in October, the result of both comments from people at the meeting — a better view of the canyon, for example — and from looking again at the plan submitted by Jim Frost, a retired architect.
On February 21st, Faulconer aide Jen Lebron met with some of the dissenters at her city office to show them the updated design. She did not respond to request for the renderings for this story.
But the mayor’s communications director, in a message that is emblematic of the murky process, responded to a separate request for information by first saying the task force is a volunteer group and not part of the city, and then addressing the questions anyway.
For Jester, much of the criticism comes down to neighbor resistance.
But questions about where it should be located from longtime friends and people she cares about disappoint her.
“There is nothing to prevent anybody from putting together another memorial — there’s more than one World War II memorial, more than one 9/11 memorial, more than one cancer memorial,” she said. “The more we remember this terrible tragedy and the people who died so young that they never reached their full potential, the more we can all learn from this history.”